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It’s a little funny that on one of the distinctly American summer holidays,
two of the best stories in baseball come from a place where Monday was just
another day. The Montreal Expos took five of six on a brief homestand to come
into Memorial Day at 32-18, just two games behind the Braves in the NL East.
The Toronto Blue Jays? All they did was sweep a four-game series at Yankee
Stadium for the first time ever, moving to 27-24 and closing within four games
of first place in the suddenly very competitive AL East.

I admit going into this piece that it’s a “write it while you can”
job. While the Expos and Jays are currently among the hottest teams in
baseball, and right there in their divisional races, I don’t think either will
be in such a lofty place in two months. For now, though, each is making noise,
and doing so in completely different ways.

The Expos have allowed the third-fewest runs in baseball (189), behind only
the freak-show Dodgers and the Oakland A’s. It’s a team effort: the Expos are
fourth in the NL in Defensive Efficiency, turning nearly 73% of the balls in
play against them into outs. That’s useful for a staff that’s just middle of
the pack in strikeouts (6.6 K/9). The defense and a league-low 141 walks
allowed have enabled the Expos to hold opponents to a .310 OBP, the key to
their run prevention.

All their success comes from keeping opponents off of the scoreboard, because
their offense is average or slightly below in just about every category, with
the four good hitters (Jose
Vidro
, Vladimir
Guerrero
, Orlando
Cabrera
and Brad
Wilkerson
) being weighed down by four sinkholes in Endy
Chavez
, Michael
Barrett
, Fernando
Tatis
and the first-base platoon of Jeff
Liefer
and Wil
Cordero
. The Expos’ strong bench–four reserves have at least a .255 Equivalent Average–has helped them win the close ones: the team is 9-3 in one-run games, and
20-10 when the margin is three or less.

While the Expos have played well so far, I’m highly suspicious about their
abilty to stay in contention. As I’ve argued from the beginning of the season,
the games they’ll play in Puerto Rico will add a travel burden to their
schedule that will be hard to overcome. Beginning with last night’s game in
Florida, the Expos will be away from Montreal for almost four weeks, and for
five of the next six, playing a brutal schedule (the Phillies, the AL West,
the resurgent Blue Jays and the Braves).

On top of that, their pitching staff is a patchwork, missing two members of
the planned Opening Day rotation (Tony
Armas
and Orlando
Hernandez
) and getting by on the contributions of three pitchers (Zach
Day
, Claudio
Vargas
and Livan
Hernandez
) with a combined 85 strikeouts and 58 walks in 157 1/3
innings. That’s not a recipe for future success.

There’s also the owned-by-MLB factor, although I have to admit that I was
wrong about that last year, when Omar Minaya added Cliff
Floyd
and Bartolo
Colon
to the team in July. The deals to get those players left the
Expos farm system in tatters, and while they still have some prospects, they
lack the top-tier guys who can be dealt for difference-makers, and it’s again
unlikely that they will take on payroll to make a run. It’s not fair to Expos
fans–33,236 of whom showed up at Olympic Stadium Saturday night–but it’s
reality.

If the Expos can survive the next six weeks and be in the race come July 1,
I’ll be able to take them more seriously. Until then, as good a story as they
are, I’m doubtful that this team has enough to stay with the Phillies and
Braves.

One province over, Blue Jays are 18-8 since their six-run ninth inning beat
the Royals on April 27. More to the point, they’re 21-11 since a brutal
season-opening stretch against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins, having taken
advantage of a softer May schedule to get their pitching and defense in order:


           ERA       IP     H   BB    SO   HR
April     6.08    237.0   302   98   190   41
May       3.78    212.0   199   62   130   29

Lighting up the scoreboard hasn’t been a problem for the Jays; they lead the
planet in runs scored, and while Skydome is part of that, they’re sixth in MLB
in EqA, so it’s not a fluke. They’re second in the majors in batting average,
ninth in home runs and ninth in walks, largely on the strength of two factors:
Carlos
Delgado
, and no holes. Only Jayson
Werth
has performed below replacement level, and he’s done so just
barely (-0.3 RARP) in a mere 34 plate appearances. Lots of teams would love to
have a low-profile, low-cost, productive middle infield of Orlando
Hudson
(.283/.339/.401, 262 EqA) and Chris
Woodward
(.268/.340/.391, .249 EqA). The shopping J.P. Ricciardi did
in the free-agent pool this winter has paid off handsomely as well: Frank
Catalanotto
(.317/.345/.495) and Greg
Myers
(.337/.422/.547) have been productive left-handed bats for a
combined cost of less than $4 million.

Of course, all this success is coming a bit early for the Jays, who expected
to continue developing their young players this season while paring more
payroll and adding talent to the organization. Their challenge will be to
continue with their original plan and not get sidetracked by their current
success. That likely means trading Cory
Lidle
and Shannon
Stewart
before August 1, despite both players’ roles in the Jays’ hot
streak, and giving more playing time to Werth, who is still learning to hit
right-handers.

Sometimes, success is as big a problem as failure. The Jays have to resist the
siren call of a wild-card run and keep adding Jason Arnolds to the
organization. The gap between them and the bullies in the division is closing
rapidly as the Sox and Yankees age, and it’s not hard to see a time when the
Jays will be the 800-pound gorilla of the East.

Notes

  • Not to get all fuddy-duddy here, but where was the baseball yesterday? Of
    the 28 U.S.-based teams, a dozen had Memorial Day off, which means that there
    was just one more ballpark filled with baseball yesterday than there was in
    1953. I’m not asking for doubleheaders here, but would it be so hard to
    schedule 15 home games in the U.S. on a day when people just might want to sit
    in the sunshine and watch baseball?

  • On Sunday, I was treated to a promo during an Orioles broadcast in which a
    Gary
    Matthews Jr.
    game-winning home run played a key role, and which ended
    with an extended shot of him finishing his swing, back to the camera, the word
    “MATTHEWS” proudly displayed for all to see.

    Unfortunately, the hero was released by the Orioles last week, turning a
    lovely commercial into little more than punchline fodder. Time to hit the
    editing room, boys! Surely there’s some footage of David
    Segui
    hobbling through the trainer’s room, or of B.J.
    Surhoff
    discussing his role in World War II, or of Deivi Cruz
    swing-swing-swinging his way through an at-bat. Hop to!

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